“One of our major flaws, and causes of unhappiness, is that we find it hard to take note of what is always around us. We suffer because we lose sight of the value of what is before us and yearn, often unfairly, for the imagined attraction elsewhere.”
– Alan De Botton
It was during a stay in center of Bangkok that my travel instincts began to take hold.
I was eyeing up one final location between the week-long waiting period between dentist visits. After all, I’d used the city as a launch pad to the region so many times over the years it was nothing new to me.
Yet at the tail end of a backpacking stint, combined with the suffocating sauna heat outside, I opted to stay put. I had photos to edit. Plus, I had a camera and the streets of Bangkok are worth documenting.
“I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the park. I want them to feel they’re in another world.”
– Walt Disney
My base was Sukhumvit, in central Bangkok. A short walk along the main road here is hectic, kinetic, pulsating, sinful, diverse and stimulating. Stained, well-trodden, pungent pavements underlie the crystal castles of five star hotels and the towering pleasure domes of chic shopping centers, cathedrals to commercialization.
It’s a classic contemporary contrast to observe while every stereotype of humanity seems to pass by or try sell you everything under the sun from flick knives and tasers to viagra and fake brand watches.
More exciting than a beach break, more authentic than the floating markets and cheaper than the Grand Palace, walking the streets with a camera and an inquisitive eye can make a week pass by in a minute.
My philosophy on urban travel photography is this: If you were to send a postcard to friends back home sans words, what would the true image be? What’s really occurring? What’s truly worth reporting?
Lose yourself amongst the chaos. Wander instinctively. Sense the mood of those around you. Ease your own. Relax into a meditative state. Attune. Plug in to the culture.
Make an intimate portrait of a complete stranger.
Too shy to approach your subject? Hide your camera.
Break the ice. Make eye contact. Ask questions.
“What’s that on your face? May I take a photo?”
Baby powder apparently has a cooling effect on the skin, This explains T-Bone.
Take your opportunities. ‘Pu’ was my little buddha in the oasis of calm that is WH Hostel in Bangkok.
I wanted his portrait against the DMT skull for a few days. When I saw him passing it by, I asked his Grandmother’s permission. This is his garden wall, but the next day the artwork became obscured by a shipping container – the hostel’s new office. The whole hostel is made completely from these vessels and, like the rest of the city, is in a constant state of flux and rapid progress.
If I’d left it one more day, the opportunity would have been lost.
The mega malls of Siam are representative of Neo Bangkok. This is Metropolis. Elysium. Babel. A Brave New World ushering in hungry consumers to their voluntary prisons.
I too am not immune to the grandiose power these modern churches hold – I’d chosen Siam Paragon for my dental procedure.
“It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not?”
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Neon beacons emerge from the descending darkness of nightfall, immersing city-dwellers in a Bladerunner-esque cityscape.
Flickering streetlights invite you to unravel their mystery.
Humanity’s endeavors appear more prominent amidst mechanical backdrops.
The photographer should transform and adapt to the changes around them.
Absorb the atmosphere.
Enter the Void.
Become a ghost in the night.
Welcome to the red light district.
Observe the night shift, the funeral march.
Nana Plaza, a three-tier stadium of desires,is where streams of individual masses perform an age-old pas-des-deux in a new age setting.
Voulez-vous coucher avec mois, ce soir?
There’s no need for a silky tongue in this place. Like the nearby malls, money gets customers what they desire.
Who seeks? Who follows? Who’s cat and who’s mouse?
Control and command. Subordinate and superior. Servant and master.
The lines can be blurred.
Most streets are two-way.
Supply. Demand. Repeat.
Observe a culture’s accentuated variations, it’s isolated evolutions,
What makes one place different to another?
The changing face of Bangkok isn’t just restricted to the architecture.
In Nana, exchanges occur long after the foreign currency bureaus close their windows.
Speed dating, Bangkok style.
Frame. Create a narrative. Hold up a mirror to what you see.
Return to Real
“We are caged by our cultural programming. Culture is a mass hallucination, and when you step outside the mass hallucination, you see it for what it’s worth.”
You see them all the time. Narrow alleys aligned with aged wooden houses or the shanty-strewn train tracks cutting through the cluster of Seven-Elevens, McDonalds and massage parlours.
How often do you decide to follow your curiosity and venture off the conveyor belt of consumer tourism and venture into parts unknown?
It’s not a philosophy for everyone, granted.
It forces you to remove the cloak of tourist anonymity and stirs an acute awareness in us that we are the foreigner.
It creates alertness, heightens our senses.
You’re not supposed to be here, which is precisely why you should be, in fact, be here.
Follow your instincts. Take the road less travelled.
If it scares you then it’s probably because you’re on the right path
Welcome to the organic realm. The desert of the real.
Change occurs much more slowly here, there’s a natural rhythm.
Though with the matrix never completely out of sight, you may experience some Deja vu.
The characters that inhabit this more harmonious underbelly are more genuine. Less-versed in English but more honest.
Unlike the street hawkers or ubiquitous billboards outside, nobody will try to sell you things you don’t need here.
Seek out these more traditional communities.
Be brave and you shall be rewarded with true authentic experience.
Examine. Probe. Dare yourself further onwards, inwards, down the rabbit hole.
Capture what you see, but don’t overstep your boundaries.
Don’t outstay your welcome or take an unwelcome photograph.
Know when to move on.
You never know what surprises await around each new corner.
It was meeting Indonesian-born ‘Sa’, a 79 year old former English translator to diplomats, in a neighborhood comprised of traditional Thai wooden houses that I arrived at Bangkok’s core.
Having spent most of her life in the village, which is hidden away yet still among the shining sky towers, she was pure of heart and as resilient as the teak wood of her residence.
She was the unassuming epicenter of Bangkok.
Next time you feel unsatisfied, when you start to feel that splinter in your mind, take a step back.
Turn off autopilot.
Put away the guidebook.
Draw your own map.
True adventure starts here.
The photographs in this article were taken over the course of a week in Sukhumvit, Bangkok.
This was a follow up of sorts to this previous article.
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